The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher spar as NIL drama overtakes the SEC

“My dad always told me this: ‘When people show you who they are, believe them.’ He’s showing you who he is,” Jimbo Fisher said of Nick Saban. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

A public spat between two of college football’s most prominent coaches, Alabama’s Nick Saban and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher, prompted the SEC to issue them public reprimands Thursday for failing to meet “established expectations for conduct and sportsmanship.”

The episode highlighted a new dynamic in college football brought on by recent rule changes that have benefited players — and irked more than a few coaches. In addition to giving athletes last year a one-time opportunity to transfer and play right away, leading to much more movement, the NCAA relaxed its restrictions on players’ ability to profit off their name, image and likeness.

The NIL issue was at the center of Saban’s blunt appraisal Wednesday of Fisher’s ability to lure a top-rated recruiting class this year. While the NCAA’s guidelines prohibit schools from using money to lure recruits, Saban said pay-to-play rules are unenforceable, and he insinuated that schools such as Texas A&M are taking advantage.

“We were second in recruiting last year. A&M was first,” the Alabama coach, who has used an annual influx of elite prospects to rack up six national championships with the Crimson Tide, said at an event involving Birmingham business leaders. “A&M bought every player on their team, made a deal for name, image and likeness, all right? We didn’t buy one player, all right? But I don’t know if we’re going to be able to sustain that in the future, because more and more people are doing it. So it’s tough.”

Fisher alerted media members Thursday morning of his intention to address the accusation that his Aggies “bought” their recruiting class.

“It’s a shame that we have to do this. It’s really despicable,” Fisher, who worked on Saban’s staff at LSU from 2000 to 2004, said during a fiery news conference in College Station, Tex.

“It’s despicable that somebody can say things about somebody and, more importantly, 17-year-old kids,” the 56-year-old coach continued. “You’re taking shots at 17-year-old kids and their families, that they broke state laws, that they’re all money, that we bought every player on this group. We never bought anybody. No rules were broken. Nothing was done wrong. … It’s despicable that a reputable head coach could come out and say this when he doesn’t get his way or things don’t go his way.”

Later Thursday, Saban expressed regret for his comments, saying on SiriusXM Radio (via ESPN), “I should have never singled anybody out, and I apologize for that part of it.”

The SEC cited league bylaws in issuing its reprimands.

“A hallmark of the SEC is intense competition within an environment of collaboration,” Commissioner Greg Sankey said in a statement. “Public criticism of any kind does not resolve issues and creates a distraction from seeking solutions for the issues facing college athletics today.”

In his Wednesday remarks, Saban noted that 25 members of last year’s Alabama team combined to earn $3 million via NIL benefits “by doing it the right way.”

“Name, image and likeness, to me, is a great concept for players,” Saban said. “Players have always been allowed to work. This is just a different opportunity for them to make money by working and using their own name, image and likeness, whether it’s signing autographs, whether it’s doing commercials or ads for some company or whatever. So there’s nothing wrong with that. … The issue and the problem with name, image and likeness is coaches trying to create an advantage for themselves.”

Fisher repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

“We do things right. We’re always going to do things right,” he said Thursday. “ … I hate it for our players who are coming here, who did things the right way, have done things the right way and will continue to do things the right way.”

Fisher became the first of Saban’s former assistants to defeat him when the Aggies upset the Crimson Tide, 41-38, in October. He said Saban called him after Wednesday’s comments were first reported by AL.com but he didn’t answer and didn’t plan to going forward.

“We’re done,” he said.

Ross Bjork, Texas A&M’s athletic director, subsequently likened Saban to “an emperor who loses their dynasty” and suggested the 70-year-old coach was anxious about possibly losing his long-standing perch atop the sport.

“I don’t know why Nick Saban would say what he said except he’s threatened,” Bjork told Sports Illustrated.

“This is personal. Coach Fisher views this as a personal attack on his integrity and on Texas A&M’s integrity,” Bjork added. “ … Everyone knows NIL is here to stay. We’ve embraced it. We have all the tools and technology. We are educating our athletes and boosters. There is all kinds of awareness here. The part that is frustrating is to say NIL is the only reason kids are choosing our program. That is hypocritical, and I don’t know why we are the target.”

What to know about name, image and likeness, and how it will affect the NCAA

Saban wondered aloud on his radio appearance if the sudden surge in NIL agreements was a positive development for his sport.

“It’s the whole system, and is this a sustainable system,” Saban asked, “and is it good for college football?”

“There is tremendous frustration concerning the absence of consistent rules from state to state related to name, image and likeness,” Sankey said in his statement. “We need to work together to find solutions and that will be our focus at the upcoming SEC Spring Meetings.”

In his earlier remarks, Saban also singled out Jackson State, where Pro Football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders is entering his second year as coach.

“We have a rule right now that says you cannot use name, image and likeness to entice a player to come to your school,” Saban said Wednesday. “Hell, read about it in the paper! I mean, Jackson State paid a guy a million dollars last year that was a really good Division I player to come to school. It was in the paper, and they bragged about it. Nobody did anything about it.”

Defensive back Travis Hunter, the nation’s top-ranked high school recruit, surprised observers in December when he spurned Florida State and committed to Jackson State. There was a rumor at the time that Hunter had signed a $1.5 million NIL deal with Barstool Sports, which produced a docuseries about Sanders.

“That’s the biggest lie I’ve ever heard,” Sanders said during an appearance on ESPN the next day. “You know what that is? That means we kicked your butt, we took what was ours, and now you’ve got to make up an excuse why. Ain’t nobody getting no million and a half. I wouldn’t pay my son a million and a half in NIL. How am I going to coach a guy making more than me?”

“I got A mil?” Hunter tweeted Thursday, with the crying-laughing emoji. “But my mom still stay in a 3 bed room house with five kids.”

Sanders responded to Saban’s comments Thursday in an interview with Andscape, the ESPN-owned site formerly known as the undefeated.

“I don’t make a million,” he said. “Travis ain’t built like that. Travis ain’t chasing a dollar. Travis is chasing greatness. Travis and his family don’t get down like that.”

Sanders said Saban’s comments were an appeal to Crimson Tide boosters, rather than an attack on Texas A&M and Jackson State. Sanders said he hadn’t talked to Saban, with whom he was featured in a series of Aflac commercials last college football season, and wasn’t interested in having a private conversation with the Alabama coach.

“You can’t do that publicly and call privately,” he said. “No, no, no. I admire him. I respect him. He’s the magna cum laude of college football and that’s what it’s going to be because he’s earned that. But he took a left when he should’ve stayed right. I’m sure he’ll get back on course.”

Saban isn’t the first SEC coach to suggest that Fisher and Texas A&M have paid players to come to College Station.

“I joked the other day, I didn’t know if Texas A&M was going to incur a luxury tax in how much they paid for their signing class,” Mississippi Coach Lane Kiffin said in February.

“To have coaches in our league and across this league to say it, clown acts,” Fisher said the next day. “Irresponsible as hell. Multiple coaches in our league. And the guys griping about NIL and transfer portal are using it the most and bragging about it the most. That’s the ironic part. … It’s a joke. It does piss me off.”

Fisher, entering his fifth season with the Aggies after leading Florida State to a national title in 2014, was every bit as angry Thursday.

“It’s the second time we’ve had to do this with grown men who don’t get their way and want to pout and throw a fit and act up,” he said. “Just go ask the people that work for him; you’ll know exactly what he’s about. My dad always told me this: ‘When people show you who they are, believe them.’ He’s showing you who he is.”

SEC Media Days begin July 18.

Loading...